Conceptualizing The Dacian I decided that the goal would be centered around community, as in building upon the ideas and artistic work shared by writers, artists, and thinkers I admire and doing my best to expose and promote their work to a wider like-minded audience. I want The Dacian to be the online journal I’ve always wanted to read.
One of the features I plan on focusing on is interviews with writers and artists, and to kick off the series I asked my favorite living Sword & Sorcery writer Schuyler Hernstrom to be my first subject. Over the weekend Hernstrom took the time to chat and answer a few questions.
Schuyler Hernstrom is a fantastic writer of Sword & Sorcery whose recent short story collection The Eye of Sounnu I review here, and made the subject of the first Short Story Bookclub. You can also read his previous collection Thune’s Vison and he’s been featured numerous times in Cirsova Magazine, including the upcoming summer special.
AC: Alright man, thanks for taking the time to do this. I just finished The Eye of Sounnu and damn, I enjoyed re-reading those stories and also getting to catch up on a few I missed when they were first published. So let me throw a question at you real quick. When did you start writing, was it a lifelong passion or something you picked up in later. What was the initial reason that made you start writing?
SH: My parents were both avid readers. My father loved REH, Lovecraft, and Vance. He was a personal friend of P. Schuyler Miller, a writer, editor, and one of REH’s first bibliographers. There were thousands of paperbacks in my house growing up. There was a stack of Weird Tales, nearly completely disintegrated, and other pulps. I used to rifle through the paperbacks looking for the coolest covers, invariably Frazetta’s. My father introduced me to Tolkien as well. I grew up reading all those pulp giants and anything else I could get my hands on. There was the library and a lot of used book stores I would check out. And the mall had two book stores back then, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. They were great for all the reprints and Dragonlance got big and then Goodkind.
I had always imagined I would write a book, a fantasy novel. Every few years I’d get a notebook and try to plot one out and maybe write a few pages and gradually lose interest. A good friend of mine writes miniatures games. I ended up writing fluff text for various games. It was zero pressure work; I just had to create a mood and paint a picture of what the little figures might be doing. That same friend suggested that we try short fiction. He wanted to write some Battletech stuff. I think they have a big digital book thing going. I remember having this sort of epiphany. I grew up reading reprints of short fiction. I loved it. My hero, Jack Vance, wrote amazing novellas, and most of his novels are incredibly skinny by today’s standard. I could write short fiction. I was sort of warmed up writing the fluff stuff, stretched and ready. So I sat down and started. I didn’t need to think about a novel, some grand, giant story. I could just write some stories, see what happened.
AC: Excellent, and your answer ties into my next question. When I finished the Images of the Goddess it left me wanting more, your world-building and characterizations are so deep and interesting that I just want to know more about the world. Have you ever considered writing a novel-length work, like maybe a full-size Mortu and Kyrus novel?
SH: Right now I feel comfortable with novellas. Things to start to happen and you sort of know when its time to change things up, quicken or slow the pace, get some action, or some time to breathe. I’m definitely going to write a novel. I just want to avoid some of the pitfalls you see, especially filler. I like to think of scenes, moods, characters, and these things stew and sort of coalesce. Then I get started and it sort of assembles itself. I just need to make sure I don’t ruin my process trying to inflate something to novel length. I’ve usually got three or four seeds in my head. Some stuff I’m thinking about now could probably wind up novel-length if I go that way. The story I have the upcoming Cirsova is some classic Men’s Fiction kind of action-adventure. I think a short novel could come out of that character. Mortu and Kyrus, I’m planning on doing a lot with those two. They could wind up in a setting with an adversary that takes a whole novel to overcome.
Novels are so dominant in the market. On one hand, as a craftsman, and a person trying to sell stories, i have to think about that. On the other hand, I want to do what I want to do. I wouldn’t mind at all if this was my full-time job. But there’s a tipping point where it could become unpleasant. I love telling stories and making shit up. That comes from the process. If I kill the process then the joy goes out of it.
AC: To shift the conversation to inspiration, you often cite Jack Vance as your favorite writer and his influence is all over your writing, what other writers or any creative artist would you say inspired you? What writers would you recommend to one of your readers who might not be as well-read but wants to get into the kind of fantasy worlds that inspired you?
SH: I think more than particular individuals, the sort of fantasy milieu of the 70s and 80s is a giant influence on me. My prose is a toddler stomping around in Vance’s boots, at least for a lot of pieces I write, but the colors, the vibe, comes from a lot of things I absorbed during childhood. I think writers might blush at these kinds of associations but things like Milius Conan film, the Beastmaster movie, the AD&D toys, the art from Atari games, all kinds of stuff. And music. Starting with Black Sabbath and now all these incredible doom bands out now.
I think as far as writers I would err on the side of recommending stuff outside the genre. Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Doris Lessing, John LeCarre, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Gustave Flaubert, Stendahl, Ernst Junger. I recently got turned onto Barry Hannah. I like Henry James for which I get made fun of a lot. I can’t claim that weighty list as proper influences as I’m over here writing about beheadings. But I think it is incredibly important to read outside the genre. Read a lot outside the genre. And read as much non-fiction as you can. I don’t feel current at all in the genre. Getting my stuff out there has been an impetus to check out the works of my fellow indy strivers, guys like Jon Mollison. I’ve been enjoying Bradford C. Walker lately. The head of the class is Misha Burnett. He doesn’t care for my stuff, which is completely fine, and its actually nice because I can recommend him without it seeming like we’re trading recommendations. For the record I’m sure he understands and respects what I am doing, he is a very nice man despite his gruff exterior. It’s not even that gruff, for the record. I like your stuff a lot and I’ve been very impressed with Xavier’s stuff too.
AC: Thanks, man. I feel the same way about Misha, he’s one of my favorite indie writers out there. I like your work because the stuff you mentioned really comes through. A few years ago I became disillusioned with mainstream fantasy, I couldn’t find anything that reminded me of the movies, shows, and tabletop games I used to play, there was a complete lack of fantasy and wonder. It was at that low point that I picked up a Cirsova magazine and read one of your stories and honestly it blew me away, I was like “here is a motherfucker that gets it, this… I want barbarians fighting robots, space witches, mutants!” Coming across your stuff was just like coming across Heavy Metal Magazine when I was a kid or that damn movie… I think I saw it on MTV and it blew my mind.
Just like me, you are a new father and are experiencing the life-changing madness that fatherhood entails. Has fatherhood affected the way you approach writing? Do you think at all about your kid reading your stuff in the future, what sort of things you want to leave for them, the subjects you focus on, and how you approach them?
SH: Thats a great question. There’s the discussion about being busy and lack of time. I think those are a little cliched. I think the thing that surprised me is a slight shift in my thoughts about death. I think it simply means more to me now. The stakes are higher. I’m not thinking about my death in particular. I have never thought of my own life as something that needed protecting or preserving in the way that I think about my son’s life. Extrapolate that across humanity, past and present, and it just shifts perspective. Intellectually, we knew that infant mortality was much higher in the past. We knew that. It could easily be reflected in writing, in a story if necessary. But I feel it in my gut now. I can see where that would color everything. I can understand my grandparents better, people that lived through the Great Depression, and then war. The importance of these bonds, these legacies we are programmed to create, it can’t be understated. A writer could imagine this if needed for a story. But I have it in my gut now.
I think with my son in the picture I want to work a little harder. There’s always the chance that something could click and it turn into something more profitable. And in the end, he’ll own all of it. Maybe he can get out there and sell it better than I can. His mother is very creative and intelligent so I think there’s a good chance he’ll have the knack too. And if he gets anything from me, I’d like him to be able to take risks and I’d like him to find joy in making things. Someday he might be able to read some of my stuff and better understand the things I think are important.
AC: Well stated, It shocked me how my perspective changed when I became a father, it’s a life-changing event that opens a new chapter in your life, a complete rite of passage event comparable to my combat deployment. Once you experience it you can’t ever go back to how you were before.
Ok, two more questions and I will let you go. A lot of your stories take place in a decaying world at the lower end if a civilization cycle. What attracts you to this type of setting?
SH: I think that comes from several places. Dying Earth was a giant influence on D&D, so it hits me twice growing up. In my own little world, growing up in Pittsburgh in the 70s and 80s, I had a front-row seat to watch decay when the steel mills left. The mills were abandoned and I watched them rust as I grew up. On a larger scale, it was the end of the post-war posterity that helped create so many myths. The change that happens between the fall of one civilization and the rise of another, those are always incredible stories. By their nature ruins are very romantic. I love Piranesi.
AC: Alright man, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I have one more question, a very important one. What is your drink of choice? Beer guy, cocktails, straight, or just a coke?
SH: I used to drink jack and cokes to get smashed back in the day. Then I just drank beer. But a while ago I stopped drinking beer because of the calories. So I completely lost the taste for it. If I had a whiskey now I would react like an eight-year-old. I used to smoke weed pretty regularly, I would consider that my drink of choice. But I can’t have that shit in the house with the kid or be high when I might have to deal with an emergency. When he gets older I might toke up again. What about you? I think you are moving more toward cocktails. Craft beer used to always, fucking always, let me down. Always so goddam hoppy. My favorite beer used to be Lion’s Head.
AC: I’ve always been a proponent of diversity when it came to drinking. I used to start the night with grayhounds, they taste like barf so I was preparing myself, but by the end of the night, I would alternate shots of whatever with whatever cheap beer the bar had. Having a kid is not compatible with heavy drinking, well, it’s not compatible with sleeping in after a night of heavy drinking, the kid doesn’t care, she’s waking up at 6 am no matter what. So lately I’ve become a cocktail guy, mostly because of the kid but also due to my fitness goals, so Gin and Tonics are my go-to drink. Bombay Saphire and Fever-Tree tonic water.
Alright man, once again thank you for taking the time to chat, and like always I look forward to reading more of your writing.
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